Travel 4th December 2018 - 6 min read

Dissecting the hype: is AI useful in Travel Management?

By Joni Lindes

2018 saw an explosion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – based tools and technology ranging from advanced booking engines, AI-driven software as well as chatbots responding to conversation and delivering real information. The only question is, will AI be just another buzz word or does it have the potential to lead to real change in the corporate travel management function?

Let’s start with some definitions: AI is defined as a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behaviour in computers. It exists as a series of methods on how to teach computers to think like humans.

This seems simple enough but AI is often confused or conflated with a bunch of related but separate concepts, most notably, machine learning. Imagine AI as the science of getting computers to behave like sentient people, whilst machine learning is one of a few approaches which describes the best method of achieving this. Machine learning believes that the best way to teach machines to behave like people is by building systems that learn in the same way that people do.

Even when grasping the difference between machine learning and AI, most people also confuse the science of disciplines like AI and machine learning with the tangible applications of it. Chatbots for example, are not AI, but are an example where the science of AI is used in another tool we can see and interact with.

Chatbots are, in actual fact, a very limited version of AI’s widespread potential and possibility. In fact, there are so many applications of AI. Most of the time we are interacting with it on a day-to-day basis without even realising it.

Predetermined hotel and flight options appearing in search results that are mostly determined by the traveller’s browser history, is a living example of AI silently working in the background – and probably influencing traveller behaviour. If the consumer travel industry is already using AI in booking, what is stopping corporate travel management from taking advantage of the same tools? Wouldn’t preferences based on corporate policy coupled with previous decisions be advantageous, and what about using AI in the data travel managers work with on a day-to-day basis?

In a field which relies so much on data and the management of it, technology that can intelligently scan through thousands of data at any point may have some value. We are now on the verge of a radical change where AI applications may alter the whole corporate travel ecosystem, from the way we book travel at one end to the way we manage and track it at the other end.

AI and Data: how does it relate?

Data is – essentially – information and AI is used within software that organises that information and communicates it.

Imagine if you had an employee that could scan through vast amounts of information at any point. They never got tired, they were always pleasant and never took sick leave or vacation. They could anticipate needs and respond before humans even know they exist. It sounds almost too good to be true!

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has given us the power to intelligently scan through large amounts of data or information in the background and use models to weigh the information and deliver what is important in response to queries. The technology is based on neural networks modeled after the way humans think. In Travel, there are large amounts of data streaming through each part of the process – keeping track of all traveller activity and spend from the time the traveller books a trip through to the time they enter their expenses afterwards. This kind of environment is exactly the type that is likely to benefit from AI-powered analysis.

1. AI for better and faster data analysis

Without data, travel managers will not be able to see any breakdown of spend. If you cannot see it or know it, you cannot influence it. While some small to mid-size travel programmes rely on data from a single source or a TMC, larger companies are seeing the value in combining different data sources – Card, Expense as well as Meetings and Events data. After all, when negotiating with hotel and air contract suppliers, communicating and implementing traveller policy and keeping track of spend, we need all the information we can get!

This massive amount of information can be overwhelming. Due to increased data sources becoming available like meetings and events data, API integration from other booking tools like the sharing economy as well as other data sources like traveller survey reviews and even airline operational data, the amount of data that used to be a stream is now a torrent. Not only do they need it in one place or data “lake” but they also need to ensure the data is able to communicate to drive action. This is where the chief value of AI comes into play.

The difference AI makes in this instance is not necessarily the data itself. We have the data and there is nothing stopping us from manually matching and analysing it to get insight. AI determines the speed in which we combine and consolidate data so it is able to be delivered as close to real time as possible, in a format that can be understood and can therefore drive real-world impact.

AI also helps communicate data as well. Travel suppliers are now beginning to develop digital assistants and chatbots that can easily communicate data to any member of any team, regardless of their data experience. This can be helpful when dealing with requests from stakeholders for certain data insight who may not have the experience to look it up in the dashboard themselves.

2. AI and communication across the organisation

We hear a constant complaint from our current clients: travel managers do not have enough time anymore. This is because their roles have changed significantly in the recent past, becoming more focused on data and procurement and, in most cases, there is not enough staff to support them.

Travel managers still, however, need to ensure data transformation is delivered across the company which involves regular communication of data insight with multiple stakeholders and dealing with ad hoc requests. Each request involves a time-consuming data analysis to send the right report to the right department.

If they have an AI agent or bot which can automatically deal with these queries plus automated report generation and sending for each department the travel team will ensure regular stakeholder communication and allow each department to steer their own function in line with travel programme goals.

Added to this is the speed of the data management and analysis itself. AI produces software that can match and analyse data from multiple sources with increasing speed, it would be a major step in freeing up their time to focus on strategic travel management activity and development.

Technology is often the missing link for taking strategy and turning it into action. As AI is beginning to shape the most advanced technology we have, why do we not use the technology to change out travel programmes for the better – from the booking process, to the data analysis straight through to the way travel teams handle their day-to-day requests and stakeholder communication.

Joni Lindes
By Joni Lindes
6 min read

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